Competing for Civic Center Hearts

The closing Saturday of the public exhibit of the 292 submissions in the West Hollywood Civic Design competition was an act of kindness for many of the entrants, and the public.

Given the competition's conscientious appeal "to all those who believe they can give physical expression to a city's aspirations and civic spirit," most of the submissions were disappointing.

The city had made it quite clear in a challenging program that it wanted the center planned for what is now a park on San Vicente Boulevard south of Santa Monica Boulevard to be "open and accessible," of "human scale" and "pedestrian-oriented," while, of course, being "a distinctive architectural landmark " containing a host of municipal services.

What the city received mostly were strained attempts to make architectural statements in a variety of fads and styles. These included period pieces from students of the Robert A. M. Stern Drawing School, mutations of Charles Moore concepts, renditions of reconditioned Star Trek sets and more cartoons than this newspaper's comic section.

No doubt, this was helpful to the jury winnowing the submissions down to five finalists, while in the spirit of good will bestowing a handful of consolation ribbons on a dozen or so others.

The 13-member jury that will meet again to select the winner is dominated by the usual professionals and locals, and chaired by Moore himself, who, in recent years, has become a sort of circuit judge of design competitions. Acting as adviser is competition connoisseur Michael Pittas.

To be kind, the competition did display a healthy design pluralism, fed by a sizable portion of submissions from around the world. One has come to expect that in competitions open to all, as opposed to the more rigid and politically fraught "invitation only" competitions in which entries are solicited from a few select firms.

In their favor, open competitions for all their warts are educational and democratic. This is a worthwhile end in itself in these days of a parochial architecture elite and rampant political and professional favoritism.

Open competitions also hold out the hope that out of the pile of submissions there will be something brilliant no one had expected, but that is just right for the project. It was through such competitions that Sydney got a stunning opera house; Washington, an evocative Vietnam Veterans Memorial; Paris, the Eiffel Tower, and New York City, Central Park.

Though no such genius leaped off the drawings submitted for the West Hollywood competition, a few promising entries did emerge that, thankfully, caught the eye of jurors. The designers of the five selected will now go back to the drawing boards and refine their submissions for presentation to the jury, scheduled for Oct. 4.

The most promising scheme of the five was the one submitted by Edmund Chang and Roger Sherman, a young design team from Boston which obviously would not have gotten a chance to display its talent if West Hollywood had opted for a closed competition. The team made the most of its opportunity.

Featuring a series of nicely sited, scaled and landscaped plazas and structures, the proposed complex by Chang and Sherman appears to be very user-friendly, and in its fragments, a strong counterpoint to the megalith of the Pacific Design Center across San Vicente Boulevard.

While their statement was a bit convoluted, the drawings were not. Particularly imaginative were the perspectives offering various views of the proposed center. This is a well-conceived scheme executed with a welcomed appreciation of the setting, climate and life styles of the young city.

Obviously well conceived also and respecting the local scale was the scheme submitted by Donald Genasci of Eugene, Ore. Unfortunately, missing from the functional plans was a strong architectural statement. The scheme was boring.

Definitely not boring was the submission of Michael Pyatok of Oakland. With its columns of lights and banners, and its "Allee de Barbeque," Pyatok's expressive scheme was definitely a celebratory statement where every day in the civic center would be a festival. But its spirit and bright colors, unfortunately, do not overcome various functional problems.

Also selected to compete in the finals were Janek Bielski and Michael Folonis, both of Los Angeles and, judging from their strained submissions, both from the school of architecture as sculptural statements, with a capital "S."

Bielski's organic scheme is primarily a wall holding back a park and confronting the street and the unneighborly design center, while Folonis' is a rationalist composition, which he said in a statement, was inspired by select scenes from the movie "Singing in the Rain." Too bad for the undeveloped scheme that it does not rain very often in West Hollywood.

We look forward to the sun and the final submissions.

Also having a competition these days is Venice. The subject is Windward Circle, at the intersection of Main Street, Grand Boulevard, Kinney Place and Windward Avenue. Once the hub of the grand canals of a grand Venice, the circle is at present a raw traffic circle with an undistinguished piece of abandoned sculpture in its center.

Unfortunately, the effort as managed by the city's Cultural Affairs Department, got off to a stumbling start, limiting the competition to 50 "invited" artists and designers, and calling for the design of an "environment" featuring "a stage on which changing art works can be displayed."

More impressive was an illustrative study, to orient entrants, by local resident Joan Cory, raising broader issues of traffic, landscaping and generally the potential of the circle as a community focal point and people place. Happily, Cory is on the jury, as are Steven Ehlrich and David Ming-li Lowe, two site sensitive architects.

One fervently hopes that the competition will go beyond selecting pieces of "plop" art, to be plopped down on an inaccessible slab of concrete. Indeed, before even considering specific art pieces, the competition should first explore ways traffic can be controlled and the circle made inviting with lush landscaping to become a work of art in itself.

Here too, we look forward to the sun and the unveiling of submissions, always hopeful to be pleasantly surprised.

Such surprise marked the result of the recent Hemet Civic Center competition. It was won by the team of David Kaplan (no relation) and George Nakatani, of Santa Monica.

For the purposes of the competition they broke away from their parent firm of Moore Ruble Yudell, but not its influence. Element's of the firm's design vocabulary marked by a soft, practical melding of regionalism and modernism could be seen in the submission.

Other finalists in the two-phased competition that attracted 78 entries were Arthur Golding of Los Angeles; Susana Torre, partner in Wank Adams Slavin Associates, New York, and Vefik Soyeren of Brussels. It was an impressive victory for Kaplan/Nakatani, and a demonstration of the opportunity open competitions afford relatively young and unknown architects.

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